Central American immigrants opting for Mexico rather than the US
TENOSIQUE, Mexico // Carlos Mejia and his family live in a room furnished only with a bare mattress in this southern Mexican town near the Guatemalan border. Their neighbours are Hondurans like them.
Mr Mejia has a job that pays $8 (Dh29) for a 12-hour day, enough for electricity, water and some food. The United Nations refugee agency pays his rent and that of a growing number of immigrant families in the town of 32,000 people.
He is one of more than 8,000 immigrants expected to seek asylum this year from Mexico, the majority fleeing gang violence in Honduras and El Salvador and to a lesser extent Guatemala. The exodus is turning southern Mexican towns into informal refugee camps.
The decision to settle in Mexico and not continue to the United States is tied to increased recognition of the risks of crossing Mexico and more recently the hostile rhetoric of US president-elect Donald Trump, the immigrants and their advocates say.
The number of those seeking asylum in Mexico this year is more than double the 3,423 applicants last year – itself a 65 per cent increase from 2014. Applications have risen by about 9 per cent each month this year, says the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, or UNHCR.
According to the Mexican commission for refugee aid, about 4,000 of the 6,898 applications it received until October had made it to the end of the process and of those, 2,162 applicants got refugee status. Another 414 applicants who did not qualify as refugees received other kinds of government protection and escaped deportation.
More migrants are seeking asylum as information about the possibility spreads, said Rafael Zavala, director of the UNHCR office that opened here a year ago as the number of Central Americans seeking protection rose.
“We expect this year’s trend of people seeking protection here in Mexico to continue,” he said.
Mr Mejia, 27, and his girlfriend Saimi Julio, 19, surrendered in October to Mexican immigration authorities at the El Ceibo border crossing, along with their 2-year-old daughter and 3-year-old son. They spent 26 days in detention before being releaksed to a migrant shelter. The couple had applied for asylum as well as a permit letting them seek work, so they spent only a week at the shelter before getting their room with the UN’s help. It took Mr Mejia another month to find a job.
A response to their asylum requests could take up to three months. Applicants cannot leave the area in the meantime, each week signing in at the local immigration office. If amnesty is denied, they can appeal and continue waiting.
Mr Mejia said he never considered going to the United States.
“It’s hard to go to the US,” he said. “You risk a lot of violence, so much crime along the way.”
The number of asylum applicants remains a fraction of the overall flow. More than 400,000 immigrants – mostly Central Americans – were arrested along the US south-western border during the fiscal year that ended in September.
But everything signals migrants are increasingly seeking asylum.
There is a precedent. In the 1980s and 1990s, Mexico took in more than 40,000 Guatemalans fleeing their country’s civil war.
There is no sign Central America’s current violence is letting up. El Salvador’s homicide rate last year was 103 killings for every 100,000 residents, making it the most deadly country not at open war.
Honduras had 64 killings per 100,000 people last year. Two of Mr Mejia’s brothers were killed last year in a robbery and he received threats in their homeland.
Tenosique neighbourhoods now teem with Hondurans. Wendy Jimenez and her family fled Honduras after her husband, Angel Castellon, refused to sell drugs for gang members who retaliated by setting fire to their home.
A large, twisting scar covers Mr Castellon’s upper arm and their 2-year-old daughter has burn scars on her legs and chest. Ms Jimenez earlier lost an uncle and a brother in the country’s violence.
On a previous trip, she and her family made it as far as the Mexican border with Texas before being sent back to Honduras. The day after they arrived, they left again.
“Our idea was the United States, but with the situation as it is, I don’t think we can go to the United States,” Ms Jimenez said, referring to Mr Trump’s vow to deport millions of illegal immigrants. They heard about the possibility of asylum in Mexico, and on this journey they applied.
Tomas Gonzalez Castillo, a friar who founded the migrant shelter in Tenosique a few years ago, said there were now more Central American families in the town and they were staying longer, unlike earlier waves that rested briefly and continued north.
“It is an obligatory migration, forced by the generalised violence,” Mr Gonzalez said. “It is a terrible decomposition of the social fabric.”
* Associated Press
Updated: December 18, 2016 04:00 AM